Cell migration in 3D micro-environments is a complex process which depends on the coordinated activity of leading edge protrusive force and rear retraction in a push-pull mechanism. While the potentiation of protrusions has been widely studied, the precise signalling and mechanical events that lead to forward movement of the cell rear are much less well understood, particularly in physiological 3D extra-cellular matrix (ECM). We previously discovered that rear retraction in fast moving cells is a highly dynamic process involving the precise spatiotemporal interplay of mechanosensing by caveolae and signalling through RhoA. To further interrogate the dynamics of rear retraction, we have adopted three distinct mathematical modelling approaches here based on (i) Boolean logic, (ii) deterministic kinetic ordinary differential equations (ODEs) and (iii) stochastic simulations. The aims of this multi-faceted approach are twofold: firstly to derive new biological insight into cell rear dynamics via generation of testable hypotheses and predictions; and secondly to compare and contrast the distinct modelling approaches when used to describe the same, relatively under-studied system. Whilst Boolean logic was not able to fully recapitulate the complexity of rear retraction signalling completely, our ODE model could make plausible population level predictions. Stochastic simulations added a further level of complexity by accurately mimicking previous experimental findings and acting as a single cell simulator. Our approach has also highlighted the unanticipated potential of targeting CDK1 to abrogate cell movement, a prediction we confirmed experimentally. Moreover, we have made a novel prediction regarding the potential existence of a ‘set point’ in local stiffness gradients that promotes polarisation and rapid rear retraction. Overall, our modelling approaches complement each other, suggesting that such a multi-faceted approach is more informative than methods based on a single modelling technique to interrogate biological systems.
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